Now on View: Taiwanese House Façade

House Façade, mid 18th Century
Probably Ketagalan; probably Gongliao District, New Taipei City, Taiwan
Camphor wood; 94 × 107 × 1 in.
Loan Courtesy of the Pomona College Museum of Art
Gift of Dr. William Kirk
There is in my possession a plank which a hundred years ago was the end of a native chief's house. It is a single piece of more than eight feet square, and on it are many aboriginal carvings.
 ―Dr. George L. Mackay, From Far Formosa

Dr. George L. Mackay
This Taiwanese aboriginal house façade is newly installed on the walls of the Bowers Museum’s John M. Lee Court. Once a decorative portal to the low wooden or slate house of its village’s wealthiest family, the façade now serves as a portal to Taiwan which was then known by its Portuguese name, Formosa. The indigenous-made house-front was cut from a great camphor tree, carved to shape and etched with intricate designs, used as ornamental architecture for several years, and then traded to the object’s first western collector, Dr. George L. Mackay, from which the written history of the façade follows.
Dr. Mackay arrived on the northern shores of Taiwan on New Year’s Day, 1872. A Presbyterian missionary by trade, Dr. Mackay travelled throughout Taiwan proselytizing and quickly developing a passion for collecting non-idolatrous aboriginal art. The specifics of travels throughout Taiwan are only sparsely detailed in his personal diaries and an autobiographical compendium of his life on Taiwan, From Far Formosa, but he does mention the façade as least twice, both times saying that he acquired it in his travels to Eastern Taiwan. A third document written by the early cultural anthropologist Dr. William Kirk of Pomona College, likely dictated by Dr. Mackay’s son when the façade was sold to secure passage back to the Mackay’s native Canada at the onset of World War II, describes Dr. Mackay first encountering the façade on the east side of Taiwan. After trading for the façade, Dr. Mackay had men carry it through forests and down to the ocean where it was shipped to his home in Tamsui.
Distribution of Early Taiwan Aborigines. Made by Wikimedia
Commons user Bstlee. The Ketagalan are in the top-right of the map.
Despite Taiwan being a relatively small island, pinpointing the village where the façade was made, and simultaneously whom it was made by, is difficult. There are 14 aboriginal groups which are recognized by the country’s government and more which are not. While each of these cultures is unique, woodcarving examples similar in design if not scale to the façade are found throughout Taiwan. With incredible fortune and the help from National Taiwan University’s Professor Chia-yu Hu, though, we have identified a camphor wooden house plank which was made by Ketagalan people, probably the same group as our façade, and potentially even by the same carver based on the extreme similarity of the lines. This house plank in the collections of the National Taiwan University Museum comes from the Gongliao (‘gift hut’) District of New Taipei City in the northeast of Taiwan, just below the range of the camphor trees. In the same village as the house plank was found there remains a worship center which Dr. Hu suspects may have been the original site of the façade’s house. Inside are painted aboriginal figures in exactly the same style as the façade.
Detail of L.2017.1.1a
Stylized and geometric carvings cover the front of the façade: junks, traditional Chinese sailing vessels in usage for at least a millennium; horses introduced by mainland Chinese and almost exclusively reserved for officers of the Qing Dynasty; aboriginal pairs in ceremonial garb surrounding Chinese men wearing queues a mandatory hairstyle throughout China’s Qing Dynasty. Together these motifs tell the desperate story of Chinese immigration to Taiwan. This was a bitter history for the Ketagalan, originally one of Taiwan’s Pingpu peoples who had lived on coastal plains until they were pressured into the low mountains where the house façade was found. Dr. Mackay, who interpreted the two concentric circular shapes of the lintel as shields, went to far as to view the shallow carvings as pictographs saying: “The Chinese may come to us by boats, but we will defend ourselves with our shields.”
Interior of the worship center in the Gongliao District Dr. Hu believes may be the
original site of the house the façade came from. Taken by F.N. Chen, May, 2014.
There is still far more research to do. In May of 2017, the Bowers Collections Team delivered a sample of the façade to the University of California Irvine’s, Keck Carbon Cycle AMS Facility for 14C testing. The result showed the tree used to make the façade died from 1677-1707, meaning that the façade itself may have been carved earlier than we believed. Square nails which appear to be from early Dutch or Portuguese sailors, are embedded into the back of the house-front, and likely date from before Dr. Mackay acquired it. Supposedly these aboriginal groups had not been contacted before Dr. Mackay’s arrival. A hole is cut into the top right of the façade’s lintel which Dr. William Kirk believed to have been a chimney, but his supposition would generally seem to conflict with Southeast Asian house designs. Though questions abound, more answers lie ahead; one need only take a first step through the façade’s door.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Tuesday, 18 February 2020

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